A few weeks ago, Frank Turk, a blogger for PyroManiacs (teampyro.blogspot.com), wrote an open letter to our friend Chris Stedman. We wrote Frank a response, and in return he responded to us. (You can read his letter to Greg and me here.) This is our reply. (Warning: it’s a long one.)
I want to begin by thanking you for your thorough response; the time and effort required to pen nine pages of anything is not insignificant—so, again, thanks.
In this letter I hope to principally address the three points you brought up in your comment, as I agree that they are the most pertinent and worthy of discussion (and, discussion is, after all, what we both advocate). I would like to begin, however, with the observation that you appear to view Greg and I as interfaith activists first, Christians second. This is not how we view ourselves, and I would encourage you not to view us in this way, either. When considering what I have to say, I hope that you bear this in mind, viewing me as someone with whom you disagree, but who is ultimately on your side, rather than someone standing in direct opposition to you.
Neither Greg nor I meant to imply that you are not a “leading voice” by saying that Chris is one. We simply used the verb “target” to describe your open letter. And while this may not have been the most sensitive word choice, it does in fact describe what your letter did. Any letter—open or not—is directed at a particular person. We saw your letter as an attack on our friend, and thus reacted the way we did. If it portrayed you wrongly, then I apologize.
I will further apologize for what you feel was a “Reader’s Digest version” of your open letter. However, I will also say that copy-and-pasting Chris’s HuffPost bio and then giving a few lines of commentary on atheism in general does not constitute devoting gracious amounts of space to Chris’s own words on interfaith cooperation. Instead it only provides a list of his accomplishments and then a bit of opinion. Our summary of your letter was only intended to provide a bit of context for those who had not yet read it (which they could easily do for themselves, as we provided the link for them), and its brevity was an attempt at saving space. Again, we had no intention of misrepresenting your points.
As for misinterpreting your statements and the tone behind them, I would say that this is a function of your writing—you do, whether you intend this or not, write with a bit of a bite. Sometimes your statements, when read by someone who has never heard you speak or is not used to your blogs, come off as snarky and aggressive. A bit of cheek isn’t a bad thing (and in quite a few of your posts is rather entertaining), but I will say that it certainly contributed to my reading of your letter to Chris, and potentially distorted what you actually were saying. Our letter in defense of Chris may not have been a paragon of open-letter responses, but Greg and I still think it addressed the issues you raised in a manner not that different from your own.
You accused us of misrepresenting you—of “demonizing” you— and yet you grossly misrepresented our own views at a few points in your response, making us out to be the bad guys in need of repentance. I would say that this tactic resembles the very thing you criticized us for doing. By telling you a bit of Faith Line Protestants’ story, as well as addressing a few of your statements, I hope I can clear up any false impressions and better articulate our own position. I will go about this as well as I can by category, examining those things which I feel have caused the greatest breakdown in understanding. (Because whatever your beef with our letter in defense of Chris, the real issue here lies in your assumptions regarding our faith, our approach to evangelism, and the efficacy of interfaith work. What we said in Chris’s letter is done.)
But before I really get going, I wish to address one of your statements that irked me on a personal level. It comes at the end of your paragraph in which you attribute our response to hubris and collegiate spirit, and assert that we must have only skimmed your letter before penning our response to it: “I like to call it the surprise in the Cracker Jack box which is my faith and mission as a blogger: surprising people with the idea that there are really folks who have walked the field of faithlessness and come out the other end with a different conclusion. But I say that only to say this: if there were actually any discussion going on, you’d probably have discovered that.” I actually did know of your former atheism—I read it in the comments at the bottom of the open letter. Moreover, I spent quite a few hours combing through your old posts, looking at other blogs to which you have contributed, etc. before even considering a response. I did this because I did not think it fair to write something addressing you when I didn’t know much about you and what you stood for. I never “took it for granted that [you were] one kind of person,” as you state. People’s lives and stories are much more complex than that.
For example, I too have a “surprise in the Cracker Jack box”—I walked away from my faith as well upon entering university, only to return to it less than a year ago. I feel this shared experience (not all that uncommon) is something that perhaps we can build from—it was a terribly dark time for me, and one that has had a profound impact on my drive to do interfaith work. Just like your time as an atheist has shaped you and what you hope to accomplish, so have my own struggles with my faith driven me in mine.
Now, back to your three points…
I find it interesting that you repeatedly refer to our participation in interfaith work as not compelling when you devoted 9 pages in response to it. That is perhaps a cheap shot, so I’ll ask you a genuine question. You claim what Greg and I are doing isn’t “new,” as if age possesses some sort of truth value. You even go so far as to say that this is a “problem” (something I will discuss in greater depth later on). What do you mean by this? Below are two points where you have posed this critique of our work, along with my response to them.
I cannot pretend that your version of what you say you mean to do is better than what has come before it. At least the old main-line Liberal approach stood in the Sermon on the Mount and in Leviticus and looked for the longest possible list of good works to produce rather than to a reductive consensus which everyone can agree on. Your version compared to your intellectual fathers is not even compelling in terms of what it is seeking to accomplish.
And at a different point:
Your idea isn’t new, and it isnt half as compelling as the liberal Christian activism that came before it — except that it doesn’t really believe that a Christian moral foundation is needed to act on it.
First off, I would like to point out that our position does in fact look to a Christian moral foundation for its basis. One can see this stated quite plainly all over our site. Greg and I look to the early church, to Paul’s ministry, and to the teachings of Jesus himself for guidance, direction, and inspiration. Greg and I often quote the Beatitudes in our posts; I don’t know where you find the grounds to make the claim that we don’t appeal to scripture when we quite obviously do so in almost everything we write. And who are these “intellectual fathers” you mention? Do you mean people like Schleiermacher and Tillich (as you keep positioning us as some sort of Christian Liberalism Lite), or are you fishing elsewhere? I’m not ignorant of the traditions that have shaped the interfaith movement or my place in it, but I’m not sure what you’re getting at there.
Point is this—I do not think Greg and I seek “a reductive consensus which everyone can agree on.” We do not advocate for that. Yes, we do seek to bring people of different traditions together around the shared value of service, but that is hardly a reductive consensus. Off of what are you basing your opinion? It feels like you are treating our view as a proposed systematic approach to the Christian faith, which is not what we are doing or what we purport to do.
When Greg and I sat down for coffee and hatched the plans for Faith Line Protestants, we both came from prominent roles in a large Christian organization on campus— the University of Illinois chapter of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. During his time as an undergrad, Greg led small groups, and I myself still serve by leading worship and doing creative planning. Though we both love Intervarsity as an organization, we noticed a kind of insularity plaguing not only IV, but also the other prominent Christian organizations on campus as well. We saw a reluctance to engage with people of other backgrounds in service, despite the fact that Intervarsity leads some of the best service trips (such as the Chicago Urban Project) of any U of I Christian organization. We felt that interfaith service seemed a natural fit for a group that already engaged in numerous projects throughout the local community and beyond.
Greg and I, as participants in both Interfaith and Intervarsity, saw that the conversation surrounding interfaith cooperation was already happening, but that Christians weren’t participating in it. At interfaith event after interfaith event, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and even atheists turned up in droves, while Christians did not. This troubled us, not least because Christians form the majority faith group in this country and on campus. And by not participating, we send signals of disinterest that reflect poorly on Christians as a faith community. If Jews and Hindus and Muslims are willing to come together to solve problems in the community, but Christians are not, then how does that make us look? Sure, we may be doing service projects on our own, but we still come across as insular and unwilling to engage with those different from us—two stereotypes that I don’t think are healthy for the church going forward, especially on university campuses.
But Greg and I were optimistic. We believed that Christians, because of Christ’s call to service and love, would be willing and eager to participate if they only knew more about interfaith itself—that it isn’t advocating a theological pluralism, that it doesn’t violate any part of our beliefs, and that it actually is a great way to show, if you will, what the Christian community is made of.
We were familiar with Chris Stedman and his work attempting to bring the atheist community into better relationships with religious groups, and we sought a Christian resource that did something similar… only, we couldn’t find one. The “interfaith question” seemed to be one that the church wasn’t asking, but that Greg and I felt should be addressed. We figured we might as well start the discussion. We’re not launching some sort of theological movement that we misguidedly believe to be novel, but rather operate out of existing values within the church to pose questions and seek answers.
Evangelism in its current and popular iterations does not address the specific parameters of interfaith relationships—relationships where you really can’t adopt the usual tactics of telling others about Jesus and then expecting a conversion at the end. It fails to negotiate what happens when the person on the other side of the table holds deep beliefs of their own, and who is not looking for an alternative.
I do not mean to say, however, that you can’t share your story/testimony with someone of another belief. On the contrary, much of our interfaith work revolves around sharing stories of faith and its impact on a person’s life. Greg and I actually see interfaith as a unique and thrilling opportunity to show others who would ordinarily maintain a distance from the Christian community what it means to believe in Christ. To us, leading by example in love and compassion speaks much louder than an outreach event or handing out Bible verses on the quad.
We’re young. We’re perhaps not the best equipped for this. But we aren’t going about things blindly. Before we began our site, we met with pastors to consult with them about our ideas. We had them read over our belief statements (all of the tabs at the top of our site) and they helped us craft them. These pastors and church leaders continue to read our blog, ready to call us out if we ever say something unintentionally out of line.
Greg and I wish to increase Christians’ involvement in interfaith cooperation because we want others to be exposed to the love of Christ. Yet you seem to see us differently. You say:
And this, really, lies as the foundation of all your other problems. You self-identify with “Evangelicalism” and call yourselves “Evangelicals”, but you are no such thing. An “evangelical” thinks proclaiming the Gospel is of the highest priority; you think it is a hopeful secondary objective. An “Evangelical” has a high regard for inerrancy and Biblical authority; you believe that the Bible’s authority is as one source of information in the secular context. An “Evangelical” thinks that teaching what the death and resurrection of Jesus means is a key emphasis; for you, it hasn’t yet come up – and can’t, because it will offend the personal ethics of those you would have to tell it to. You assume they have heard it and that is enough. Finally, an “Evangelical” places the conversion of others to being followers of Christ – not just admirers or glib flatterers of Christ – as the key objective of the Christian faith; for you, playing well with others is the key objective, and if that objective means they don’t hear the Gospel or respond to it, there’s always tomorrow.
Frankly, the last few sentences of the above paragraph are false; you have made assumptions that echo the very same reductive descriptions you criticized Greg and I for making. The implications/meaning of the death and resurrection of Christ undergirds FLP’s very existence, and we do not shy from it simply because it may offend someone else. It’s not the message itself that we find offensive, but the way in which the church can sometimes present it. Moreover, we do not assume that “they have heard it and that is enough.” You have taken what we said about Chris and erroneously extrapolated it onto our entire ethos. We know Chris has heard the gospel and knows it well. What more can we do then but allow him to make his own decisions? If there are those who have not heard about Christ or the gospel message, Greg and I do not take the approach you attribute to us—that we feel “there’s always tomorrow” for someone to hear it. We have not stated such a position anywhere, either in the letter regarding Chris or in the material found on our site. Your assumptions egregiously miscast what Greg and I aim to do. In a way, your critique once again treats us as if we espouse or posit some sort of systematic theology, one in which we only vaunt “playing well with others” as the chief aim of the Christian individual. Though we make seek peace over strife, I wouldn’t say that this comes at the expense of our beliefs or the strength of our faith.
I ask you to consider the following statements, which come straight off of our website:
-We believe in the Bible as the central and holy text of the Christian faith that it is a vehicle through which God conveys truth, and that it is the authority on matters of morality. We maintain that God created the universe–including human beings, which he made in his image, rendering each person inherently valuable.
-We believe that Jesus, whose life is described in the New Testament of the Bible, was both human and divine, and that his crucifixion on earth was a sacrifice for the punishment that all human beings would otherwise pay for falling short of God’s standard (a concept called sin). Consequently, we believe that faith in Jesus’ sacrifice is the only way to both live life to its fullest on earth and be granted life forever with God in heaven. We believe that Jesus will also be returning to earth to judge the humankind on the existence or absence of this faith.
-We believe that Jesus’ life and actions are an example for the way that we should live, and that all Christians form a global community (the body of Christ) that God often uses to interact with the world. Finally, we believe that God communicates in many ways with believers through the Holy Spirit, a part of the Triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) as expressed in the foundational creeds of the church.
This—our belief statement—is displayed prominently in a tab at the top of our homepage, and includes both the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds. Did you even read it? If you had done, I don’t see how you could have levied any of the criticisms that called into question our beliefs about the primacy of scripture or the value we place on the Gospel narrative. At one point in your response you also claim that we possess “uneasiness with the actual Christian message,” but I ask in return: how do you know this? Like your other assumptions, this one rings false. One read-through of our belief statement would have affirmed that. Our concerns lie with the expression of the Christian message—not the message itself—specifically where it intersects with interfaith work. (Read a few of our past posts on FLP where we try to articulate our perspectives on this very topic. Feel free to comment.)
Then, onto this charge: “Your view isn’t the least bit “Evangelical” unless we change the definition of that word.” I both agree and disagree with this. First, I must admit that you caught me with my trousers down—if you read my bio on FLP, you’ll see plainly that I am a member of the Episcopal Church, and even seeking possible ordination there. The ECUSA is quite obviously a mainline denomination. So… am I lying when I call myself an evangelical? By the Wikipedia definition you provided, then yes, perhaps I am. I’ve been down that road before during my upbringing as a Baptist, and did not like my time there. Certain beliefs I hold do fall firmly within the Christian Liberalism that you attribute of me (I do in fact enjoy Tillich). But I would take a look back at the belief statement above. Clearly, I’m not some sort of sympathetic-to-the-Jesus-Seminar kind of person who sees the gospel as merely a beautiful story of death and rebirth; I do take a reasoned approach to my faith, but I don’t flirt outside the bounds of orthodoxy. The first comment in your response’s stream mentioned detecting more than a hint of Emergent Christianity in my (and Greg’s) views. I’d say that such an assessment is fair—to a point. But does that mean we aren’t evangelical?
I believe that “evangelical” shouldn’t have to mean an individual who fits into Bebbington’s four perimeters as mentioned in the Wikipedia article. In the same article from which you pulled, one can find the etymology of the word, which comes from the Greek “evangelion,” meaning “good news.” Thus, an evangelical is one who proclaims the “good news.” Not too tough (and I know you knew that). In this way, Greg and I fit the description, and this is how we have thought of ourselves. I’ll admit we may employ the term rather loosely. From your comments, I see that Greg and I should probably do better to define this.
If we don’t seem to be typical evangelicals, then I would say Greg and I are doing our job well. Interfaith cooperation is not something currently on the wider evangelical radar, and we’re trying to change that. (Though I would note it is gaining traction within the evangelical community.) But again, you don’t think there is anything novel or new about what we do. In regard to the Million Meals for Haiti event, you said:
Do I need “e[m]pathy and understanding” to think to myself, “huh! The people in Haiti who have been decimated for more than a year by the aftermath of a natural disaster probably need something to eat!” Or do I just need the raw facts? I mean: even the Southern Baptist Convention can mobilize for the Red Cross (and does so) without checking anyone’s baptism certificates. Is that really a wild leap forward for “interfaith dialog”, or does it turn out that you guys just found out that this happens in real life all the time, and that it happens mostly when people can agree on really gigantic incidents of suffering? The problem is not seeing the gigantic incidents of suffering: everyone can see those, and no one with a Western values system will tell you that humanitarian aid is uncalled for. The problem is that you guys think that this is new, and an innovation, and a neoteric way to do society – and that it’s the most important thing you can be concerned about.
What you fail to acknowledge (or perhaps fail to value) is that this approach to interfaith cooperation—one that revolves around service—doesn’t just affect those who need the aid, but also affects those serving. By mobilizing both the religious and non-religious, we interact face-to-face with those who would never set foot inside a church. You can’t directly represent Christ to those who are in the pews if they’re sitting in a synagogue. Or a mosque. Or a temple. But you can show your faith while packing meals together and sharing stories about what motivates you to serve. We discuss the transformative power of service all the time in the church, but I challenge you to think of it in terms of interfaith cooperation. True, it’s not a new idea. The idea of meeting people where they are, of finding common ground, of sharing our lives and the basis for our faith, is as old as the Gospel itself.
I know that we’re operating on different wavelengths with this one, and we can certainly discuss it more. The “so what?” question is certainly important, and I feel I’m probably not giving you a satisfactory answer. Yet, for time’s sake, I will move on, as we can talk more about it when we have the opportunity to address it by itself.
Whew. I know this has dragged on for far too long, so I will end here with these two paragraphs:
If that further offends you, so be it. But in that, I offer you the chance to repent of your mistakes. The real message of Jesus is that when we turn away from what God has actually said to what seems right in our own eyes, we can repent if we believe that Christ died for our sins and was raised to new life to prove his work was worthy.
This is your chance to repent, if you believe. You can repent of abusing facts to advocate for social ends; you can repent of neglecting evangelism for the sake of making more friends; you can repent of denigrating the authority of the Bible; you can repent of making Jesus into merely a good example.
I feel no compunction to “repent of my mistakes,” for I genuinely do not believe I have made any. I have not, as you claim, turned away from “what God has actually said to what seems right in our own eyes.” I have not abused facts “to advocate for social ends.” We’re not “neglecting evangelism for the sake of making more friends”—clearly we’re not making any over here, for one—but hope that through leading by example in service and in our community, we can be the “salt and light” that Jesus himself compels us to be. I have in no way made Jesus “merely a good example”—a reread of the second bullet point in FLP’s belief statement should tell you that.
Behind your words lies an assumed superiority, an assumed “rightness,” that I do not agree with. I’ll admit I think it comes across as self-righteous in much the same way that the end of your “Open letter to Chris Stedman” did. You say that I am in the wrong, but all you have done in your response (excepting perhaps those criticisms you made regarding the tone and points of contention in our letter) is attack your own construction of what you assume Greg and I must believe. Your cadre of commenters has similarly attacked us based on these misrepresentations of our views. You raise some very valid points, but because they come couched in cynicism they are sometimes hard to tease out. I don’t mind that you critique my beliefs, I just ask that you actually critique my beliefs, not your beliefs about them. If you didn’t enjoy it when we did it to you (which I apologized for, as we sincerely did not mean to do so), then I ask you not do it in return.
It seems we differ in our theological stances; however, because I believe that you reached your view of your faith through careful study and consideration, I don’t call for you to repent. I can see how you believe the things you do and respect that fact despite our differences, and I ask that you extend me the same courtesy. Because again, Greg and I are trying to reach people for Christ, and have been presented with a terrific avenue for doing so. We do not stand opposite you. At our most basic, we’re just trying to coordinate service projects, demonstrate Christ’s love, and promote religious literacy and understanding.
There is no such thing as an airtight response, especially in this arena, and in order to address everything in your letter I would have had to take it almost line-by-line. It’s clear that you and I disagree on a number of accounts, but I hope I at least gave you a better sense of my stances and ideas (and those of Greg as well). Greg and I do not want to be seen as misguided for our positions on evangelism and interfaith cooperation. Instead, we want others to see where we are coming from, to see that we have reached this point out of a reasonable assessment of our faith and our world, and know that not everyone will see things the way that we do. As you acknowledge, it is easy to drop into caricature when critiquing someone else, and it is also easy to make incorrect assumptions from these mischaracterizations. I hope I have cleared up some of your questions, and apologize for any caricatures we would have constructed of you.
As I said at the beginning of this letter, Greg and I are Christ followers first and foremost—albeit Christ followers who see a real benefit and need in working together with people of other faiths. Interfaith relationships will continue to remain a reality and a challenge—indeed, their necessity will only grow as the world continues to shrink. The movement toward building bridges of cooperation has begun, and either Christians will play a productive role in it or they won’t. Greg and I hope they will. The discussion we are interested in having at FLP is one that seeks to examine the role that evangelism plays within interfaith cooperation, and it is there that you will find answers to your more specific questions about what we feel this looks like. Some people may not see any value in this, and we understand that.
We welcome voices to this discussion, even dissenting ones, and would love to have your participation and that of your readers as well.